The plane boards, the seat belt lights illuminate, and the flight attendants dutifully close the overhead storage compartments. The pilot’s voice comes through the announcement speakers welcoming everybody aboard and offering a brief flight overview. Next, the calming yet chipper voice announces there will be some important safety information to be aware of in the unlikely case of an emergency, so listen up. We all know what comes next. Wear your seat belts, know the exits, don’t smoke, and make sure to affix your own oxygen mask before helping somebody else requiring assistance. This message, of course, is not an appeal to self-interest, but rather a reminder that we are usually best able to aid others after we equip ourselves.
It makes me wonder what circumstances in my life I jump into with the best of intentions, only to find that because I didn’t oxygenate myself first, I didn’t do a whole lot of good. In many cases, I’ve caused a lot of hurt.
Author Henri Nouwen makes a similar observation about our interpersonal interactions, of affixing our own oxygen supply first. He reminds us that being present and honoring of others comes from a place of centeredness. Not self-centeredness, of course, but centeredness regarding our ability to genuinely listen and be motived by loving response rather than fearful reaction. Many of the destructive attitudes that weaken societies are born more of fear and insecurity than anything else. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous, but it is important to recognize that many distrusts, suspicions, and hostilities of the “other” have more to do with our own insecurities than with their characteristics and behaviors.
As I become more attuned to my place in the world, my relationship with my Maker, and relationship with creation and other people, I should be able to identify the sources of my motivations, fears, and passions. Impulsive responses should not rule me, but grounded engagement that comes from listening to the source of Life.
This grounding is necessary in navigating my own responses to the world and in creating a hospitable place where others can come and unburden themselves of pretenses. Genuine engagement with others comes from the ability to love, and to love with wise sincerity, comes from cultivating a stillness within, not the need to be there for others, or a compulsion to drive away loneliness with companionship or the urge to fix things. It is in this posture of staying tethered to Peace that I am most able to discern my own motivations and be a wise and contributive agent in the world.
But what about my response to people who are intolerant, discriminatory and contribute to injustice? How do I respond to people who hurt people? People who continually “other” fellow human beings in an attempt to maintain sham superiority. What about when my feelings for the oppressor turn to repulsion and a denial of their humanity – when my revulsion turns to disgust and then to hatred. What then? I am hating injustice, or merely the unjust? As I ponder this, I hear Nouwen’s gentle prompting voice challenging me to listen to my motivations; admonishing me to still my passions and listen to my center. Let go of my tightly gripped reaction and follow the lead of Love: the only posture that makes authentic engagement possible.
I once asked a friend in social work if she had an affinity for any particular passage in scripture. She told me her favorite story in Bible is the one where Jesus storms into the temple and finds merchants and currency exchangers. In a hot passion, he knocks over their tables, creates a whip out of some cords and drives the people conducting commerce out of the temple. I’ve always had trouble with this display of passion: give me Jesus calming the storm from the bow of a boat, but Jesus chasing and possibly beating people? He could have asked them to leave. My friend is not a violent person, so I asked her what she saw as so significant in this passage. She told me it showed that Jesus did stuff. He saw injustice and took action. Yes, I said, but he was violent – he was angry! How is that cool? How is the evocative of peace? She said, for her, it was a reminder of motivation. The story reminds her that anger at injustice is godly.
The question for me is, what am I motived by—love or hate? In this story, she sees Jesus as motivated by love for the abused, not hatred for the abuser. This differentiation is something I’ve been thinking on when it comes to my own treatment of others and approach to social justice.
And when I think about social responsibility, and what it means to be an active agent of peace and hope in the world, I am often reminded of something Nouwen says. In his book Reaching Out he writes, “When our protests against war, segregation, and social injustice do not reach beyond the level of reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteous, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments.” I think this might be a good year for me to start thinking about reaction versus response; to examine my motivations equally in how I respond to the other and the one who does the othering; to make sure my oxygen mask is on my own face before looking to those around me.